Filling the void at a cost

April 22, 2018

How much is the private sector contributing towards education?

Filling the void at a cost

From heavy bags to hefty tuition fees, private schools in Pakistan have lately remained in the news for one reason or the other. In the early decades after independence, the private schools’ system in Pakistan remained modest; largely supported by non-government organisations (NGOs), both religious (madrassas, missionary schools) and secular. These schools primarily catered to high-income families residing in major cities.

But after the state nationalised educational institutions during the 1970s, Pakistan witnessed an exponential growth of private sector service providers, mainly due to the state’s incapacity to fulfil education goals for its masses and declining standard of the service. "Nationalisation of educational institutions by Bhutto was one of the biggest storms which ravaged the country. Standards of public schools fell drastically," says Khalid Shah, founder and Chairman All Private Schools’ Management Association.

Today, the private school system is largely for-profit, fee-based and without any direct government support. Punjab has the country’s highest proportion of private schools, and the most up-to-date statistics on private provision of education. A Private School Census conducted in 2016-17 in the province showed that private schools have increased dramatically in numbers.

The steady growth of private schools, however, has prompted many to comment that school is a booming business. The main source of income for schools -- tuition fee -- has become a source of worry for quite a few parents and the main reason for criticism.

Uzma Waqar, a resident of Karachi, feels the pinch of the cost of educating her three daughters despite belonging to an upper middle class family. "Although the school where my children go has an overall good standard of studies and extra curricular activities, an announcement of an increase in tuition fee does send shivers," shares Waqar.

"Our personal income does not necessarily increase on an annual basis and just to be able to bear the cost of education, we have to cut down on many of our personal expenses. Why do schools have to make an annual raise in the fee, why not after 2-3 years?" she asks.

More recently, some parents took to street against fee hike, with even children tagged along. An online research was conducted to garner support from parents wanting lesser fees, but such attempts did not work, highlighting either lack of an organised effort or incapacity to address concerns.

With the devolution of education after the 18th Amendment, each province has a different story to tell regarding this issue. The Sindh High Court recently quashed a government rule which restricted increase in tuition fees by private schools to 5 per cent, terming it as "constitutionally impermissible." The court did, however, direct the Sindh government to frame relevant rules within three months to regulate fee determination, if it wished. The government is in the process of finalising its recommendations.

In 2016, the Punjab Assembly passed the Education Authority Bill which allowed a maximum of 5 per cent increase in school fee annually. After negotiations between the school associations and the government, the provincial government ordained, "If there is a reasonable justification for increasing existing fees at more than 5 per cent, the school would have to apply to the registering authority, at least three months before the commencement of the next academic year."

In Sindh the schools have to register with the Directorate of Private Schools and in Punjab with the District Regulatory Authority.

The private schools maintain that rise in tuition fee is unavoidable. "There should be no fee regulation. There is only a small percentage of parents who are complaining, but they continue to send their children to the same schools," says Asim Yaqoob, Regional Director South, Beaconhouse. "The government should see economic realities. The private sector invests a lot in the teachers and other staff, infrastructure, research."

But such investment is visible in mostly mainstream schools of the private sector. Many smaller setups springing up in the nooks and corners of streets operate in residential structures, with no additional facility and an unchecked curriculum.

This trend is also blamed by some on the declining standard of public schools. "Government’s lack of interest in schools is giving way to more private schools. People have no choice but to send children there," says Khalid Shah.

Although the school in question is there for nearly four decades with a current strength of over 500 students, some believe that the low performing schools cannot survive for long. "The market is very competitive. Some degree of self-regulation is already present in the sector. This is the beauty of free enterprise that those who don’t keep up or meet the standard, do not survive for long," says Asim Yaqoob.

Research also shows that private schools operating in rural and lower income areas tend to be staffed by young, unmarried women with low levels of education and little or no formal training in teaching. They are also paid substantially less on average than the government school teachers.

Thus, better performing schools -- claiming a list of high achievers -- are mostly available to only middle income households in urban centres. Parents with a desire to provide their children quality education, juggle between a wide range of tuition fees and an equally wide range of curriculum to choose from. Their source of satisfaction is rather material. Gleaming campuses, qualified staff, well-managed events and a constant checks and balance on students’ performances steal the show.

The masses, however, contend with average to below average schools, with poor facilities and untrained teachers.

At least in essence, the thriving private schools sector does come under some scrutiny of the state. "In the Sindh Education Department, the Directorate of Private Schools oversees registration and enrolment, syllabus, number of teachers and whether facilities provided are at par,’ informs Naheed Durrani, Managing Director, Sindh Education Foundation.

"Private schools have to renew registration with the government every three years," adds Khalid Shah.

However, many in the private sector are not satisfied with even the regulatory standard of the government. "In Pakistan when they talk of checks and balance, do they have experience and capacity to conduct these checks, do they have training and education?" questions Asim. "If government seeks control, it doesn’t leave much for the private sector schools than to pay bills. This attitude is a major impediment in running private sector schools and can affect the maintenance of quality standard. At worse it can result in an increased deficit of education provision."

Of nearly 50 million children of school-going age in Pakistan, about 50 per cent attend school. A growing network of private schools has largely contributed to this figure, with many now collaborating with the government on an experimental basis to reach out to the masses. Most provincial governments are increasingly relying on public private partnership schools, which although still at an early stage, have received local and global recognition. It seems that the state, despite collecting taxes and revenues, is delegating its role as provider of a basic right as ordained by the Constitution of Pakistan to non public sector. It has neither been able to provide quality education nor justify a satisfactory and effective check and balance on the sector.

The schools, on the other hand, demand compensation in the form of a high bracket of tuition fees, thus limiting their reach to those who can afford it. The provision of right to education, therefore, remains neither in the hands of those who bear the ultimate responsibility nor with the ones who shoulder the cause, while the future of Pakistan marches waywards.

Filling the void at a cost